Glossary III: Rise of the Smartphones

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We’re just a little more than a month away from mLearnCon 2011, so it’s a good time to start boning up on some mobile learning terms. You don’t want to get caught up in a jargon-packed conversation at the conference and not know what your newly found mLearning colleague is talking about.  This will be my third post of glossary terms so you can start by going back to the first two, “Ubiquitous, Context…Wha?” and “Fragmentation and NFC in Your Pedagogy,” to brush up on several terms right away.  Strengthening your vocabulary not only equips you for your mLearnCon networking but it can also spark ideas of what you can do with your mobile learning strategy and implementation.

In this post we are going to focus on some of the features that are part of that mobile device you carry around with you everywhere: the smartphone. We tend to take for granted all that it can do. At the same time, you might be overlooking some of its capabilities. Take for instance the smartphone’s ability to change an app’s orientation when you hold the phone sideways. This is handled by the accelerometer in most cases. The accelerometer measures the acceleration of the device and uses the information to present the content on the screen for the best user experience. This feature is often leveraged in gaming for better display and control, and it can give better readability and viewing angle during reading, listening to music, and watching videos. If you have an iPhone 4, this feature is enhanced by a gyroscope in the phone. The gyroscope works with the accelerometer and the result is more accurate motion sensing and increased fluid responses in the applications that take advantage of it. You may want to consider this feature in your mobile learning especially if your content is better displayed in a landscape mode. If it will make your user experience better, then you will want to take advantage of it.

There is another “meter” in your smartphone called a magnometer which is a digital compass. Like the compass you used in Boy or Girl Scouts, the magnometer can tell which direction your mobile device (and presumably you) is facing.  It works like your real compass by reading the earth’s magnetic field. You can already guess how this feature can enhance user experiences. For instance, the magnometer works with your GPS in navigation software to help you with your turn-by-turn directions. Or it can play a big part in augmented reality games by telling you which direction to head next to find the next clue. Or if you have used an application that overlays information over your smartphone camera image, it is very possible the app is utilizing the magnometer. Consider using this feature in your mobile learning if directional instructions are part of your design.

There is one more development in the world of mobile device sensors that will excite weather enthusiasts. Did you know your tablet can include a barometer? The Motorla Xoom has a barometric sensor that can read the atmospheric pressure around you. As of this writing there are not many apps taking advantage of it but you can try it out by downloading Barometer HD for free at the Android Market. Like the other sensors, the barometer will become more prevalent in mobile devices and will be leveraged for all sorts of mobile learning and performance support applications. You can imagine that apps that are used by agribusiness companies or landscaping businesses will want to take advantage of as much weather information as possible to make informed decisions daily. Steep changes in barometric pressure could also trigger the mobile device to alert the user about impending bad weather or even a potential headache.

So far we have been looking inside of your smartphone but  there is an important part of your device that is outside facing – your touchscreen. If you have a capacitive touchscreen, it is a piece of glass coated with a transparent conductor such as indium tin oxide (ITO). Your body also contains electricity. So when you touch your screen, the electricity in your body disrupts the  electrostatic field of the screen. The location of the disturbance on the screen is relayed to the processor and the message is relayed as tom what type of interaction needs to take place. It is important to note that a capacitive touchscreen has to be touched by skin to work accurately.  So, if your users work outside in the winter or work in a refrigerated environment such as in the food industry, mobile devices with capacitive screens may not work if they are wearing gloves. This example is one of the many reminders that you have to know and understand your users context when you design mobile learning. A resistive touchscreen is similar to the capacitive screen in that it takes activity on the screen as a message to the processor to complete an action. The difference is that a resistive touchscreen responds to pressure on the screen. So, you can press it with a finger or a stylus. The screen is two flexible sheets coated with a resistive material and separated by air or microdots. When you press on the screen, you press the two sheets together and the location of the pressure is sent to the processor to interpret the information. This is the older touch screen technology and is generally being phased out in smartphone usage. Both of these screens can be programmed to respond to multi-touch input.

So now you should know your smartphone a little better both inside and out. It is very important in the initial strategy of your mobile learning initiative to have a complete understanding of your target mobile devices and their capabilities and limitations. There are hundreds of devices to choose from and operating system alternatives that come into play when you are weighing which smartphone or tablet should be the optimal one to run your applications and train your workforce.

If you would like to strengthen your vocabulary even more, download the free Float Mobile Learning Primer app at the iTunes App Store or the Android Market. The app includes a glossary of over 200 mLearning terms.

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Scott McCormick is a founding partner of Float. Building on more than 30 years of experience in training, eLearning, and mLearning efforts for Fortune 500 companies, Scott helps companies embrace new learning strategies and deliver results. Scott is in charge of client relationships with global leaders in healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality, and insurance, and is instrumental in building new business and contributing to Float’s thought leadership efforts. Scott is featured in Float’s latest book, “Mastering Mobile Learning,” available from Wiley and ASTD Press.

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On May 12, 2011
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